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Special Characteristics: Valley of Sheer Granite Cliffs; Spectacular Waterfalls; Magnificent Forests; Marvelous Domes; and High Sierra Peaks

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Falls—Yosemite National Park

THE Yosemite National Park lies west of the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in middle eastern California. The famous Yosemite Valley is a small part of this extraordinary holiday garden—a canyon 7 or 8 miles long by less than 1 mile wide in over a thousand square miles of beautiful and varied scenic wilderness.

The irregular eastern boundary is the crest of the Sierra, a rampart of tremendous granite peaks buttressed by pinnacled spurs of nature's noblest gothic, spattered by snow fields and mimic glaciers, a mountain barrier uncrossable by road except at one point, lofty Tioga Pass. Westward from the perpetual snows of this stupendous wall flow innumerable streams, which converge in two river systems watering and beautifying the inimitable pleasure ground. One of these streams passes through that gorge of great celebrity, the Hetch Hetchy Valley; the other flows through that gorge of greatest celebrity, the Yosemite Valley.

The park includes, in John Muir's words, "the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth, silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry, pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous canyons and amphitheaters; gardens on their sunny brows, avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked, rugged gorges, and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculptures; new-born lakes at their feet, blue and green, free or encumbered with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars."

This land of enchantments is a land of delightful climate. Its summers are warm, but not too warm; dry, but not too dry; its nights cold and marvelously starry.

Most visitors know only the Yosemite Valley. And, indeed, were there nothing else, the valley itself would stand in the first rank of national parks. It was discovered in 1851 by mounted volunteers pursuing Indians into their fastnesses. Because of its extraordinary character and its exceptional beauty, it quickly became celebrated; but it was not until 1874 that a road was built into it. Until then it had been approached only by trail.


No matter what their expectation, most visitors are happily astonished upon entering the Yosemite Valley. The sheer immensity of the cliffs on either side of the valley's peaceful floor; the loftiness and the romantic suggestion of the numerous waterfalls; the majesty of the granite walls; and the unreal, almost fairy, quality of the ever-varying whole cannot be successfully described.

After the visitor has recovered from his first shock of astonishment—for it is no less—at the supreme beauty of the valley, inevitably he wonders how nature made it. How did it happen that walls so enormous rose so nearly perpendicular from so level a floor?

It will not lessen wonder to learn that it was through the slow, persistent wear of running water and glacier ice that the chasm was formed. Investigations by the United States Geological Survey have made clear that the valley was cut by the Merced River to a depth of 2,000 feet before the ice age began, and that the glaciers then added about 1,000 feet to its depths. The tremendous amount of work performed by the river was made possible by the torrential speed to which it was again and again accelerated by the successive uplifts of the Sierra Nevada, which range grew in a relatively short period, as time is reckoned by geologists, from a height of only 2,000 feet to its present height of 14,000 feet. The great width of the chasm and the remarkable verticality of its walls, on the other hand, are distinctly the work of the glaciers. The ancient Yosemite Glaciers, forcing their way slowly through the narrow, stream-worn gorge, quarried away and steepened the sides, thereby producing towering cliffs and transforming the cascades that poured from the mouths of the lofty hanging valleys to leaping waterfalls.

The Yosemite Fall drops 1,430 feet in one sheer fall, the highest free leaping waterfall in the world. The Lower Yosemite Fall, immediately below, has a drop of 320 feet. Vernal Fall has approximately the same height, while Illilouette Fall is 50 feet higher. The Nevada Fall drops 594 feet sheer; the celebrated Bridalveil Fall, 620 feet; while the Ribbon Fall, highest of all, drops 1,612 feet—a fall 10 times as great as Niagara. Similarly the sheer summits: Cathedral Rocks rise 2,592 feet perpendicular from the Valley; El Capitan, 3,604 feet; Sentinel Dome, 4,157 feet; Half Dome, 4,892 feet; Clouds Rest, 5,964 feet.

Among these monsters the Merced sings its winding way.

The falls are at their fullest in May and June while the winter snows are melting. They still have volume in July, but after that they decrease rapidly. But let it not be supposed that their beauty depends upon the amount of water that pours over their brinks. It is true that the rush of water in the Yosemite Falls is even a little appalling in May, that sometimes the ground trembles half a mile away. But in September when much of the water of the great fall reaches the bottom in the shape of mist, the spectacle still possesses a filmy grandeur not comparable, perhaps, to any sight on earth. The one inspires wonder by its immensity and power; the other uplifts by its intangible spirit of sheer beauty.


The enormous park area above the Valley's rim is less celebrated because it is less known.

Glacier Point commands a magnificent view of the High Sierra. Spread before one in panorama are the domes, the pinnacles, the waterfalls, and, dominating all, Half Dome, a mythical Indian turned to stone. A few steps from the hotel one looks down into Yosemite Valley, 3,254 feet below.

The acquisition and repair by the Government in 1915 of the Old Tioga Road across the park and over the Sierra through Tioga Pass made the rim country accessible, and now trails lead from public camps in the Valley into the fastnesses of the High Sierra, making available to the camper-out hundreds of limpid lakes and rushing trout streams set in a land of delight.

And thus is added to the amazing water spectacle for which the Valley is famous still another kind of Yosemite waterfall destined to world-wide celebrity. The Tuolumne River, descending sharply to the head of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, becomes, in John Muir's phrase, "one wild, exulting, onrushing mass of snowy purple bloom spreading over glacial waves of granite without any definite channel, gliding in magnificent silver plumes, dashing and foaming through huge boulder dams, leaping high in the air in wheellike whirls, displaying glorious enthusiasm, tossing from side to side, doubling, glinting, singing in exuberance of mountain energy."

The crowning feature of this mad spectacle are the water wheels which rise 20 feet or more into the air when the slanting river strikes obstructions.

In addition to its many other attractions, the Yosemite National Park contains three groves of Sequoias, the celebrated "Big Trees of California." One of these trees, the Grizzly Giant, has a base diameter of 27.6 feet and a height of 209 feet. It is more than 3,000 years old. The automobile road passes through an opening in the trunk of another, the Wawona tree. Still another living tree is hollow from bottom to top, so that one may step within and gaze upward through it to the sky.


Last Modified: Fri, Sep 1 2000 07:08:48 pm PDT

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